Moneybox

Bail Out Everyone

Bail out workers. Bail out families. Bail out states. Bail out businesses. Do it now.

Steven Mnuchin, in focus, looks on as President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Tuesday.
Do it, Steve. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The good news on Tuesday, relatively speaking, is that there’s real momentum in Washington for a dramatic economic response to the coronavirus crisis. The Trump administration, for instance, is now reportedly pushing for an emergency spending package totaling more than $1 trillion. The specific ideas for aid have improved, too. The White House has gone from advocating a payroll tax cut—a slow and ineffective approach to stimulus that would have dribbled out money to the workers who likely needed it least—to backing direct cash payments to families, a stronger idea that has backing from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate (though they differ on details).

At this point, we still don’t have a package (though Mitch McConnell promises the Senate GOP is working at “warp speed” on one). So I’m taking this moment to offer a plea: Congress, please bail out everyone.

I mean it. Families. Major industries. Local restaurants and retailers. States. Cities. Everyone needs a bailout. We’re facing a freak, potentially steep recession, and nobody knows exactly how long it will last, since that duration will depend entirely on our ability to contain a new and poorly understood virus. But if we do more to support workers and businesses now, we’ll experience less economic scarring down the line, and the recovery should be quicker.

There’s also no reason not to bail out everyone. There’s no moral hazard argument that you’d be incentivizing bad behavior—after all, businesses and consumers aren’t responsible for this mess. And the cost? It doesn’t matter. Really. It doesn’t. First: Interest rates have plummeted thanks to this pandemic, which means federal borrowing is spectacularly cheap. Second: The Federal Reserve is buying Treasurys left and right as part of its efforts to stabilize the financial markets, meaning much of the debt will effectively vanish anyway. Third: Allowing the economy to deteriorate will hurt tax collections anyway, so we might as well spend freely now to prevent a long-lasting slump.

How exactly do we bail out everyone? Like this.

Bail Out Families

Right now, the hottest recession-fighting idea on Capitol Hill is also the most straightforward: Just cut people a check. The amounts and specifics of the plans vary. Sen. Mitt Romney wants to send every American $1,000. A group of Democrats is talking about sending as much as $4,500 to every adult and child, depending on how long the recession is. The Trump administration is splitting the difference, suggesting up to two $1,000 checks. There are other flavors of the plan going around as well. Bottom line: This is good. Sending people money directly is a straightforward way to bail out regular Americans, by making sure that each household has some cash to cover its basic needs like rent, regardless of whether they’ve been laid off, seen their hours decline a bit, lost some tips, or just need a bit of help for whatever reason as this crisis wears on. Even if a family isn’t hurting, giving them extra spending cash could boost consumer demand (it’s money to order takeout during everybody’s quarantine). Even $1,000 could make a big difference—among other things, it would just cover the median rent for a month.

There are some important questions lawmakers need to answer about precisely how they plan to shower dollars on the country. Do you give the same amount of money to every family (which is simpler and easier to administer) or adjust it for income and family size (which some people might find fairer)? Do you just send one check or drop additional care packages of cash if the recession lingers?

There are also important downsides to this whole approach. First, it could be a little slow. It took the Bush administration months to mail out its rebate checks during the 2008 recession, as former Obama administration economist Jason Furman noted in an op-ed advocating for the idea a while back. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin seemingly suggested at a press briefing that the money might go out in as little as two weeks, but in a meeting with Republican senators, he said it might arrive closer to the end of April, by which point we’ll probably be neck-deep into this recession. Second, the money might not end up being enough for some people who are laid off.

Which is why we need to …

Bail Out the Unemployed

A lot of people are about to lose their jobs. Restaurants and bars, which employ more than 12 million people, are already being crushed, and the situation will only get worse as more cities and states order them to shut down and require residents to remain at home. Millions more Americans work for hotels, airlines, casinos, sports arenas, concert venues, and other businesses that are about to go on freeze. There are going to be droves of layoffs, and people will need to support themselves.

The quickest, easiest way to do that is by bulking up our current unemployment insurance system. Today, unemployment benefits generally cover between 33 and 55 percent of a worker’s old earnings, depending on the state. University of Massachusetts Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube has proposed bumping that replacement rate up to 75 percent. He would also expand the benefit duration past the normal 26 weeks (the Obama administration lengthened it to 99 during the Great Recession, but that probably won’t be necessary) and temporarily eliminate bureaucratic requirements that people hunt for work, since that won’t be easy while the economy is in hibernation. He writes:

In normal times, the concern with having a very high replacement rate is that it discourages job search as people take advantage of the generous benefits instead of looking harder. This is a reasonable concern in normal times. But this is not the concern now—we don’t really expect many of those laid off to be able to find jobs in this environment. Indeed, ideally most of those laid off will be so only temporarily, and will be called back once the pandemic subsides and the recovery begins. Therefore, in this case, providing a generous replacement rate of at least 75% is a reasonable strategy that will get money in the hands of the people who are most strongly hurt by the crisis. This recognizes that the problem is not to help the unemployed along while they look for a job (which they cannot do very effectively right now) but rather to fill the holes in their budgets during this temporary pandemic.

If we want to get fancy, Dube suggests that the government can tweak the unemployment system so people who only have their hours slashed are also eligible, or incentivize companies to keep workers on their payrolls. Either way, we need to make sure that people who lose a job can continue paying their basic expenses.

Bail Out Small Businesses

Small businesses need a bailout too. Your favorite burger bar can lay off its staff temporarily and close its doors for now. But in the end, it still has to pay rent, and without help, many simply won’t be able to in the coming months. And if we allow restaurants and retailers to shutter for good, it will mean a slower recovery, since it will take time for new businesses to open up and start hiring. Plus, it’d be depressing. Nobody wants to see cities full of empty storefronts with “for rent” signs.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate’s small business committee, has pushed to expand emergency lending through the Small Business Administration (SBA loans are made by private banks and guaranteed by the government). Originally he suggested a $50 billion program, but told Slate’s Jim Newell Tuesday it will “be far more than that at this point.” Given that the food and accommodations industries ordinarily generate more than $200 billion every quarter, it’s probably good that he’s thinking bigger.

But as CNBC has reported, many experts, including SBA veterans, are uncertain that the agency actually has the bureaucratic capacity to do the job. It currently makes 50,000 loans per year worth $30 billion total, on average, as part of its general lending program. In theory, we’d now be talking about a potentially much larger number in a matter of weeks or months. It’s also not clear if banks are up to the task: Only 14 percent of banks or other lenders have made an SBA loan in the the past 12 months.

I honestly haven’t seen an idea for getting over that bureaucratic hump. And while some economists have suggested more exotic plans for funneling money to small businesses, setting up an entirely new system will take time we don’t have. That means figuring out basic administrative capacity is going to be one of the key puzzles lawmakers need to solve if they don’t want this pandemic to turn into an extinction-level event for the services industry, which underpins so much of the economy.

Bail Out Cities and States

Cities and states are about to lose an enormous amount of tax revenue, and unlike the federal government, they can’t run massive deficits to cover the shortfalls. That means Washington will need to come to the rescue if we don’t want significant layoffs among public employees and cutbacks to services.

One very simple way to do this would be for the federal government to cover more of states’ Medicaid costs, which currently take up about 16 percent of their budgets. Democrats have fought for this during negotiations so far, and they should fight harder still. Another would be to simply give states big pools of money that they can use to bail out their own city and county governments. Either way, we don’t want to see a replay of the financial crisis.

Bail Out Big Business

Is every major industry in America going to need a bailout? No. Will a number of them? Absolutely. Airlines are a mess. Hotels too. The beleaguered oil and gas industry claims it doesn’t want one, but it wouldn’t mind if the administration directly purchased a massive amount of crude for the country’s strategic petroleum reserve. But either way, the bailouts are probably on the way. And the main thing to remember is that, this time around, it’s best not to get overly upset about them. There are some cases where it may make sense to attach conditions—it might be sensible to force airlines to maintain larger cash reserves, since they’re turning into serial bailout recipients. But ultimately, this is a crisis caused by a global health disaster and the Trump administration’s slow-footed response, not the bad decision-making of any single corporation. It’s all right if corporate America gets a hand, so long as everybody else gets bailed out too.